Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission in Fresno, said the plan, presently in the form of a memorandum-of-understanding, is the first of its type.

During the recent San Joaquin Valley Table Grape Seminar in Visalia, Nave said details will hopefully be in place for announcement to the industry by late May.

Practice has been that a new table grape variety, once released by USDA, is not patented and can be propagated and planted by any party, domestic or foreign. For many years, USDA has developed new cultivars, with the commission, a marketing order representing some 600 growers, paying about one-third of the costs of the research involved.

Foreign growers have been free to obtain new variety plant material, develop vineyards, and eventually market fruit to compete with California growers.

"The new plan does not mean," Nave stressed, "that all future releases will be patented with the commission as the exclusive licensee. The key is that each variety will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

Exclusive license

Once a new variety is so evaluated and recommended for release by the commission and cleared by USDA, the commission could apply to USDA for an exclusive license. USDA would retain patent rights.

With a license, the commission could grant, in turn, sub-licenses to selected nurseries, domestic and perhaps foreign, and govern propagation and distribution of the variety.

Plant material of the new variety would be sent through the Plant Foundation Materials Service at the University of California, Davis to assure it is virus-free before distribution.

"It will also be possible for us to write into licensing agreements for nurseries with foreign markets that the fruit from that variety cannot be marketed in the U.S. during our season," Nave said.

"This is an amazing opportunity for the industry to control, to some degree, its own destiny with future variety releases."

She said the idea for the patenting-licensing concept originated with the commission’s research committee some 15 years ago. Although proposals were made on several occasions over the years, USDA officials were not receptive. But in 1999, when the idea was floated once again, newer officials at the agency agreed to proceed with it.

USDA grape breeder David Ramming in Fresno has been developing new and improved cultivars since 1975 with support from the commission. They include the Princess and Autumn Royal table varieties and the DOVine raisin variety.

The process from breeder’s bench to prospering vineyard is lengthy. A breeder, using both classical and sophisticated gene-splicing methods, may work for 12 to 15 years in crossing, selection, and laboratory and field observation, while growers may need another decade to learn how to best grow the variety.

Ramming’s goals have been new seedless table varieties having larger, sweeter berries more attractive to consumers, while searching for red, white, and black types with good storage traits and extended marketing periods.

Other objectives are cultivars that do not require treatments to enlarge berry size and have resistance to powdery mildew and fan-leaf virus.

Four of his recent selections show promise and are in advanced stages of evaluation. They include a mid-season red with a Muscat flavor, a late-season red with large berries and a meaty texture, and a pair of mid- to late-season whites having large berries and neutral flavor.

Nave said varieties the commission recommends for USDA release under the new program must demonstrate some advantage over an existing variety, so that two varieties with the same characteristics and quality do not compete in the same marketing period.

"At the same time, we are looking for new varieties that are more economical to produce, better match consumer preferences, and have improved post-harvest traits," she added.

Panel still viable

On another subject, Nave said the commission remains viable and will continue to promote the crop, despite a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturning an earlier district court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the commission.

The issue, in federal and state courts for the past 15 years, is whether the mandatory assessments for the commission and other referendum-based commodity marketing orders are unconstitutional if a grower objects to speech-related activities of a program.

"Rumors of the commission’s demise as result of the recent Ninth Circuit decision are greatly exaggerated," she said, adding that the case has never been tried and the commission intends to take it to trial during the next two to three years.

The California table grape industry, which supplies 97 percent of the U.S. fresh grape output, produced a record 95 million, 19-pound boxes in 2002, exceeding the 82.4 million boxes of 2001 and the previous record of 90.4 million set in 1997.

Returns for 2002, however, reflected the general agricultural turndown and average prices per box lagged 17 cents from the five-year average.

Exports for the 2002-2003 season totaled nearly 35.4 million boxes, valued at more than nearly $385 million and continuing the expanding worldwide demand for fresh California grapes. The top ten markets were Canada, Mexico, China, Malaysia, Philippines, United Kingdom, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Guatemala.